Thursday, November 29, 2012

Turn that frown upside down!

Navigation camera mosaic sol 111 showing Yellowknife bay (NASA/JPL)
That's what Curiosity tweeted just now after they announced in an update on their website that says nothing fantastic has been found  and that the news update that will be given on December 3 this year at the at the Fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco will provide only updates on the mission's recent investigations of drift material with its full array of science tools.

But we shouldn't be too disappointed. After all, Gale is new territory and we are in uncharted waters as far as Mars exploration goes. Mars has an extremely well established tenacity for surprises and with Curiosity's whopping science package we should expect lots of future surprises that will revolutionise our understanding of the red planet and our own world.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Time Magazine's Person of the Year

TIME honoured the protesters
last year (Time warner)
Every year, the Time magazine sets an issue aside to talk about the most influential people (or things) of the year. Editors will have the final say but you can can vote on who should be declared the winner. And one of the contenders for this year is our very own gal Curiosity! You can vote for her here as well as for other people you might fancy. I haven't a clue about Curiosity's chances because so far its a 50-50 chance as far as the online voting goes. Who do you think should win?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Dust storm to the South

As I said in a previous post, it's southern spring turning summer and this is when we should expect dust storms to form usually starting from the south. The reason for this is that Mars' orbit is such that it closest to the sun during southern solstice (that is southern summer) than any time of the Martian year. This means more solar energy hits the Martian surface, creating atmospheric instabilities that give birth to storms that may be regional or global in size.
Global mosaic made by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's colour imager for daily weather imaging. The landing sites of the operational rovers are marked. The dust storm's boundaries are demarcated with white arrows, occupying the Hellas basin and Promethei regions to the south (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
This storm was tracked from the northern hemisphere as it descended south to its current position (up going down in the mosaic above) where it settled and and is now growing. This is so far a regional storm but already the skies are darkening a little at Meridiani planum where Opportunity is and Curiosity is reporting a drop in pressure and elevated night temperatures (the extra dust in the skies traps more heat which elevates temperatures). Curiosity is nuclear-powered and has only to accomodate warmer ambient temperatures than usual but Opportunity is solar-powered and might suffer from a loss of solar power. For an idea of what its like under such storms, see the montage of images below from Opportunity during a global storm in 2007.
The symbol above is tau and represents atmospheric opacity (Commons/NASA/JPL)
Now this is all just dust and not sand or anything sind-sized because Mars' atmosphere is too thin to lift these materials in to the air for an extended period of time. But despite that, these storms can do damage to hardware and potentially humans (fine aerosols in the air might cause lung irritation or even cancer) so understanding how to predict when and which regional hiccups can cause global wipe outs would be great. Welcome to Mars folks! We can expect sunny and dry spells interspersed with showers of dust and snow (I'm not kidding, it actually SNOWS on Mars).

Visit the Malin Space Science Systems site for a weather report on the current storm.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Animation of Curiosity Rover's First 'Touch and Go'

This animation of Curisotiy's recent 'touch and go' activities was made on the RSVP software which the mission team uses to prepare commands for a day's work before sending them to Mars via NASA's Deep Space Network.

What has Curiosity found?

I guess we're finally there now. Welcome to Glenelg folks!
Right navigation view looking eastwards on sol 102 after the rover's 25.3m drive. Notice
the layering of sedimentary rocks here and that Curiosity is actually sitting on  a steep slope overlooking tilted
strata. (NASA/JPL/mosaic by me)
It's now 104 sols into the mission.

The rover arrived here after driving 27.2m eastwards since leaving the drift at Rocknest (CHIMRA is still holding a sample from the fifth scooping activity which will be used for analysis whenever its OK to do so). After driving almost 2m last week on Friday, the rover did a 'touch and go' operation on a rock dubbed 'Rocknest 3' the following day where the team commands for a short arm instrument readout for a short while before moving on. In this case they took a 10 minute readout with the APXS instrument before stowing the arm and driving 25.3m until they hit the area you see in the above mosaic. From here on the plan is to select a new target for potential drilling.

While writing this post, I caught a bunch of tweets from different people saying something about a 'discovery for the history books' made by the SAM instrument during its analysis of soil at Rocknest. Already I could feel a tingle of sensationalistic mystery creeping throughout my being. Grotzinger, the mission's chief scientist based in Caltech, Pasadena said that its (the discovery) 'gonna be one for the history books' but we'll have to wait while they recheck their measurements before they announce what exactly was all the hubbub for. According to's 20/11/2012 report:
The rover team won't be ready to announce just what SAM found for several weeks, NPR reported, as scientists want to check and double-check the results. Indeed, Grotzinger confirmed to that the news will come out at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, which takes place Dec. 3-7 in San Francisco. 
The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is where all the action will be as far as this piece of Martian mystery is concerned though you can be assured that whatever it might be it might very well be interesting only to the geologists. Unless they've found methane... but don't count on it. Stay curious!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Moving On

Curiosity has finally completed her activities at the drift and has finished the first day of her 100th sol on Mars with a bump forward by a metre or so. That leaves her only a few tens of metres before she hits Glenelg, a treasure trove of sedimentary layers for her mission team to drill into! There lie a few pages of precious geological revelations folks. Stay tuned!
Glenelg's layers as seen by the navigation cameras, sol 100 (NASA/JPL)

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Whirlwinds and Radiation

Thanks to our blooming power company, writing this report for yesterday's telecon proved to be a challenge in and of its itself. It was all air and radiation yesterday as the speakers talked about what the data from Curiosity's weather and radiation-measuring instruments so far show.
The Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) and the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REM) instruments showed nothing out of the ordinary in terms of a discovery although 2 strange things amid the graphs stand out.

DAN sits on the side of the rover (NASA/JPL)
Measurements from REM show pressure patterns typical of a southern spring equinox turning into summer. As that happens we should see a gradual increase in average daily pressure. This happens because the southern polar cap, which contains carbon dioxide locked away as 'dry ice' plus water ice, will release its bulk of dry ice gas back into the atmosphere as gas (i.e. sublimation) as summer approaches (this process leaves behind an ice cap richer in water ice as that cannot melt nor vaporise under current Martian conditions). This has been noticed together with a daily rise and fall of pressure which is caused by daily heating of the atmosphere during the day (which lowers the pressure) and cooling at night (which raises the pressure). These daily planetary transitions of pressure is called a 'thermal tide' (see the diagram below).

Thermal tide (NASA/JPL)
Things get interesting when we get to the wind data which shows two things. The first, more dramatic, find is a period of time when the direction of wind started to change in a sudden manner. These changes corresponded to significant dips in pressure by about 1 to 2 pascals. This indicates a small, low pressure with high speed winds  system passed over the rover at the time i.e. a whirlwind or dust devil which are common on Mars as well as Earth. Curiosity didn't image these events maybe because they simply missed them (there were 2 events on sol 75 of the mission) or, more likely, they weren't carrying enough dust to make themselves visible. This would agree with orbital images which can spot any signs of a previous episode of dust-moving-whirlwinds. None have been seen in Gale crater so far. It should be noted that despite the image below, Mars' dust devils have not enough power to blow over or damage the rover in any way because of the comparatively thinner air density.
Dust devil on Earth (Jeff T. Alu, Commons)

Second, the speakers at the telecon mentioned about the wind patterns in the area. Winds were simpler to understand in previous missions because their areas of investigation were mostly flat areas of land. But here the topography is wild and that makes the wind much harder to understand. The team expected to get winds directed towards them from a north-south direction, directed so by the slopes of mount Sharp that lies just south of the rover. Instead REM is giving directions from the east-west direction, indicating that it might actually be the rim of the crater that is directing the wind. The wind direction is, however, expected to shift to a north-south direction when the rover starts driving up the slope of Sharp. As Claire Newman, the PI of the REM package put it, it would  be a big surprise if that didn't happen. Already their computer models are being put to the test which also allows us to test out forecasting methodologies used here here on Earth (a direct return of investment).
Wind directions that are postulated to occur during the day. At night they reverse direction.
Curiosity is detecting a mixture of the winds directions marked blue painting a confusing picture
of the areas meteorology (NASA/JPL/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS)
Radiation measurement is another key mission goal for Curiosity. The goal is to build up a comprehensive database of the total radiation levels on the surface of Mars for at least a whole Martian year to support future manned missions. So far the data shows an expected peak in radiation levels during the day (corresponding with the low pressure characteristic of the day). This is because with low pressure means that the atmosphere above the rover is even thinner than usual which means that there is less gas available to offer protection from radiation from space (which includes solar radiation, galactic and cosmic radiation). This means that potential astronauts might not want to idle around during midday especially during solar flare events which produce a heavier dose of radiation than usual. On Earth we derive protection from the Earth's powerful magnetic field (Mars' field has all but disappeared) and a thicker atmosphere which is rich in the crucial ozone gas which blocks excess ultra-violet rays.

Curiously there seems to be some evidence of a general upward trend in the radiation being received by DAN and may signal the existence of a new cycle that the team have yet to elucidate.
Can you see the trend upwards? (NASA/JPL/SwRI)
 And there you have it. SAM has already ingested another sample of Martian regolith and... the power is finally back after 2 whole days! Now I can cool down under the fan!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Telecon tomorrow

There will be yet another teleconference tomorrow hosted by NASA at 1900hrs GMT tomorrow (15/11/2012). As usual you can listen to the telecon over at NASA's site or via JPL's ustream channel. This announcement follows news on the successful ingesting of a sample of Martian regolith by the SAM instrument which is now currently analysing the soil with it's 3 different spectrometers (mass, gas and laser spectrometers). The instrument's first analyses of the air show that the instrument works perfectly and it's now all a matter of improving the its sensitivity for trace chemicals in a sample.

I'm not sure if this conference will talk about SAM. We shall see tomorrow.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Fifth scoop for SAM

It's been a busy week but I have finally had some time to check out Curiosity's recent activities. We're now in the post sol 90 portion of the mission where most of the team conduct planning and execution via remote means like phone and the web. It certainly makes things easier for a lot of people I'm sure. It must be something like the difference between an actual university course and an online course, you don't need to leave your life behind and live by a timetable that shifts by forty minutes everyday (because a Martian day is longer than Earth's by that number of minutes).

This week Curiosity has dug into Rocknest for the fifth glorious time and has a sample destined for the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM). Remember that last time it was the CheMin instrument (see this post) that got the first sample and now here we are with yet another state-of-the-art instrument about to receives its share.
Five little trenches on sol 93's navigation view (NASA/JPL)
SAM is a really complicated instrument and even more complicated to actually run but in the end the investigators involved would like to acquire high quality data so the instrument demands a lot before sample reception. As Ken Herkenhoff explained in a recent blog entry on the USGS's astrogeology site:
The focus is on preparing SAM for delivery of its first solid sample, which involved a "dry run" that went well and preconditioning on Sol 91. Most SAM activities require a lot of power, as expected, so there wasn't much room for other science. But the science team squeezed in some ChemCam and Navcam observations, along with the normal background REMS, DAN and RAD measurements.
'Dry run' here I believe pertains to the procedure of running the instrument with absolutely nothing inside to check for possible contamination of the sample chamber before an actual sample is delivered. In the previous atmospheric runs they would do such moves before receiving a sample of Martian air as well as after they has finished using the sample. This helps to rule out or compensate any contamination signals.

I really find SAM amazing. I loved chemistry a lot back in my highschool days and this is one instrument that will keep me busy while I try to read up on it.
A full bucket. Sol 93 left Mastcam eye (NASA/JPL/MSSS)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Sol 90: A day of Change

A view of the NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building in
Brevard county, Florida where
spacecrafts are prepared for flights (NASA)
Curiosity is doing fine and has crossed the 90 sol mark today which means around 200 members of the science team will be heading back to their respective home institutions after having spent the previous days of the mission working at JPL's mission control in Pasadena, California. But this does not mark the minimum primary mission time (unlike the recent missions to Mars) which in Curiosity's case will be 1 Martian year or roughly 2 whole Earth years before the mission starts applying for extensions from NASA.

Sol 90 also means that the mission team will now be following Earth time and not Mars time which is longer than ours by almost 40 minutes. Which means many won't have a constantly shifting reporting time to work with. And, as this article from the Pasadena Sun shows, some will have time to do some basic civilian stuff like ... voting!

So today really is a day for change! What a coincidence. Of course what happens at the polls today (on a serious note now) will ultimately affect the federal agencies (budgets especially) like NASA and their ability to do such wonderful things that inspire AND benefit us all here on Earth. There truly might never be another nation like America.

Friday, November 2, 2012

No methane. Now live with it!

Fascinating telecon today. The science tidbits were excellent and there was plenty of knowledge to go around. Members of the SAM instrument team were on today and their assessment was simple; no detection of methane has been made yet in all 4 cycles of SAM's 'Martian breathing' sessions. I'll post more on the instrument's details while summarising the initial findings of SAM, the first instrument of its kind to land on Mars, later.

But what struck me was the seemingly endless list of questions on the null results that came from the press. It's not there because it wasn't detected so further investigations are required. That's how science rolls now live with it! Its sort of like the patients you get around here; they get all worked up when you declare them fit but become almost jubilant when declared sick! Null results may be informative to scientific minds but they're just not good enough for publicity I guess!

CH4 or bust: Telecon today! UPDATED

NASA will host yet another telecon today to give an update on Curiosity mission's atmospheric research efforts. I think we all know what that means Methane (or CH4; that's its chemical formula showing 1 carbon atom and 4 hydrogen atoms) here we come!

Methane is an interesting molecule because one of its many sources besides volcanism is life! Concentrations of methane have been detected in the Martian atmosphere from space but Curiosity is the first mission that will make similar observations of the gas from the surface. But if I were betting my money, I'd say that life as a source is a no no. Probably its presence may signify still active volcanism on the Mars which would still make it an incredible find. We'll find out tonight at 2000hrs 17000hrs GMT. You can listen in on today (11/02/2012) via ustream or NASA's audio feed.

We see you!

MAHLI or the Mars Hand Lens Imager at the end of the rover's arm turret has done it again, producing 55 high res images that have been stitched together to give some context of the rover's surroundings, with her as the primary subject!
Curiosity enjoying the paparazzi! (NASA/JPL/MSSS)
That mountain behind her is Mount Sharp. It is kind of weird to see Curiosity framed in front of an extraterrestrial landform because many of us space enthusiasts never get to actually see images of the entire spacecraft sitting on the surface of another planet (let alone in such gorgeous resolution and colour). It's almost like actually being there. Or maybe the alien nature of the planet diminishes on seeing something familiar nearby so it helps to make Mars look more like some other desert on Earth (except for the sky).

If you look closely at Curiosity's cameras and ChemCam (the white box at the top of the mast with one big mirror to the right) you can see reflections of MAHLI! What fun! These images are a not a result of national vanity but will be used to assess dust accumulation on the vehicle and wear on the wheels (there are so many dents on those wheels now). Just to make it easier for my readers, you can access the full resolution version here. Emily over at the planetary society's blog has an educative (as usual) post on this image's projection here.

To top off this post, watch another of JPL's wacky video presentations of what its like be on Mars climate wise. Many of friends and relatives (those who agree to waste their time talking about another world that they might visit) assume that Mars is a rather warm if not hot place. It is anything BUT warm!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Innovation: the success story of CheMin

Yesterday's telecon helped to put into perspective the importance of what the Curiosity team has done; the first off-world spectroscopic analysis of extraterrestrial material using an X-ray diffraction instrument. And if that isn't enough, this instrument usually occupies a space equal to your average modern fridge! How do you lug such a thing to Mars? The only way out is to miniaturise it (my parents keep complaining about how the buttons on their phones keep getting smaller with every model. I don't hear them complaining now that there aren't anymore!).
Progress; from room size to the CheMin (circled in orange right above) and ultimately spinoffs for mining and research (yep, the orange case is it! ) (NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)
CheMin's story is reminiscent of the progress computers have gone through over the past few decades ('a computer in every home?! You're crap' so they told Bill Gates). Miniaturisation is the endgame in technology and it demands innovation in design and even the way we think and consider reality. Now thanks to NASA's work, CheMin's spinoffs are available for a diverse number of uses including mining and HIV/AIDS virus research. In other words space pays off. Big time! (It is interesting to note that NASA does allow scientists to earn royalties from patented designs).

So how does it work? First we must remind ourselves some physics; X-ray is light in a manner of speaking. It is the second strongest 'light' in the electromagnetic spectrum. And like ordinary white light, it can undergo something called diffraction. This is the ability of a beam or a wave of any sort for that matter (like electromagnetic ones) to spread out when they pass through an aperture. Now when that happens to light (which is a mixture of wavelengths) the spread out waves give us the colours of the rainbow.
Diffration (Commons)

Now CheMin is all about diffraction. It actually takes 10mm cube of sample with 65mm cube in reserve in powdered form and puts this powder in the path of a laser beam. The beam, like the waves in the animation to the left of this passage, are spread out and the resulting image of the spread out waves (which we cannot see for obvious reasons) is recorded by a charged coupled device or CCD (another nifty gadget with NASA pedigree) which acts like an electric equivalent of our eyes' retina, recording the position as well as energy/frequncy of 99% of all the photons that strike it. It is a single-photon counting mode that ensures that a single pixel records a 1 or 0 value i.e. a photon or no photon. The X-rays are produced by a Cobalt source that is bombarded by electrons to excite it into emitting them. These rays are very energetic and anything producing or absorbing them needs to be cooled down to -60 degrees celsius. And that's important because they need to do these sessions for up to 10hrs (these can be divided up to save time and energy). Doing it at night also helps with the heating problem because its much colder then than during the day.

But hey! What's causing the X-ray beam to diffract? The powdery sample contains crystals with a maximum size of not more than 150microns. These crystals have regular crystal framework which acts like an aperture wonderland. The X-ray photons are spread out in a defined way which is dependent on the arrangement of the crystal's many atoms. It is this regular pattern of diffracting and interfering waves that allows scientists to know exactly what material they're handling and actually measure concentrations and ratios accurately for mineralogical identification (CheMin's CCD can also see the fluorescence (glow) that comes out of sample while it is being hit with X-rays allowing scientists to detect elements in the sample greater heavier than sodium in the periodic table).

And that is exactly what CheMin sent back to Earth:
The CheMin X-ray scattering pattern for Rocknest material (NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)
The data can also be plotted by the counts (the number photons) against the energy of the photon although they didn't do so here. They detected feldspar, pyroxenes and olivine. The latter 2 make up most volcanic rocks. The speakers at the telecon compared the sample's signature to the volcanic material on the slopes of Mauna Kea in Hawaii although there is a signature showing that 50% is amorphous or non-crystalline material that doesn't seem to be easily explainable and they would have to do more research to find out what exactly is it. No water evidence (yet) if you having trouble following.

So that was pretty much that. The Q&A session saw a lot of queries on methane results from Curiosity. Project scientist John Grotzinger said he had nothing to say on that matter but said that it might be addressed next week (no people this ain't no conspiracy it's just that they're not yet ready for press).

The sample cells that hold the sample in the path of the X-ray number 27 which can be reused so for a mission that is set to last well beyond 2 years CheMin's future on Mars looks fairly secure for now. Five of them carry standard materials for calibration purposes including ceramics and quartz. The cells ride a wheel that can rotate 185 degrees to receive samples that's dropped from the funnels to the waiting cells. Each pair of connected cells vibrate to move the sample grains around so that all of them get a chance to say cheese for the X-ray beam with their best 'sides'. It is actually this vibration system that revolutionised CheMin because it allowed the powdered materials to be handled with very few moving parts.
CheMin's pair of cells (NASA/Ames/JPL)
I'll leave it here now with this video of the instrument's principal investigator Dr. David Blake giving a demo of CheMin. Stay curious now y'hear?

For the nerdy type, there plenty more to read about this instrument here.